The two best parts of a Choose Your Own Adventure book are when you initially feel out the shape and paths at the start, and then when you grow tired of dead-ends and faff and just start cheating. The same seems true for Reigns: Three Kingdoms, the latest in the decision-making story series, which arrived on PC (and Switch) yesterday after a year exclusive to Netflix’s inexplicable library of mobile games. Once again, you will decide the fate of a kingdom (this time, China) by swiping left or right on binary decisions. Unfortunately, you cannot cheatily flick through to interesting parts nor use your finger as a bookmark. Not even if you jam it into a USB port. I did try.
Reigns: Three Kingdoms is the fourth game in Nerial’s leadership series, following two medieval Europe-y ones and an official Game Of Thrones adaptation. This time, it’s inspired by the famed Chinese semi-historical epic Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, starting in the year 183. You’re trying to take over 13 regions and settle this tumultuous period. All this is wrapped in an Assassin’s Creed-esque premise that we’re testing a simulation, which has Assassin’s Creed-esque secrets and twists of its own.
This plays out mostly as a series of binary decisions. Events, encounters, conversations, policies, and such are presented as a a stack of cards, which you drag left or right to make your choice. Do we side with rebellion? Should people be able to buy their way out of of prison? Do you agree thinking is cool or do you call a scholar a nerd? Do you help a fisherman expand his business? Which child do you bet on in a game? Do we ban alcohol for soldiers? Wanna marry someone? Wanna follow this cat? Swipe to decide.
Some decisions start or advance quests, whether that’s working towards gaining power or helping someone bust ghosts. These stories can be fun diversions. Many decisions increase and decrease your four meters: Supplies, People, Military, and Virtue & Morality. Usually, you’ll swap one for another. If any meter gets too high or too low, someone will off your character and you’ll reincarnate in the simulation as a cousin. This does preserve your campaign progress, though many decisions recur in each life. This quickly becomes tiresome, and it undercuts the fun of choosing your own adventure.
As I reincarnated over and over, I started to haste through repetition by playing in one of two uninteresting ways. The first is to focus heavily on your meters. Don’t weigh the morality and consequences of decisions, don’t develop consistent beliefs, don’t imagine you’re living a person’s life, just repeat the correct solutions you’ve learned for some encounters and otherwise rule with craven populism to keep those bars in balance so you can blast through and hopefully hit new cards soon. The other way I fell into playing was embracing death, recklessly launching in the direction of anything new and pushing it as far as I could with the backup plan of picking up any hanging threads in a subsequent incarnation. Neither approach feels good but they’re better than trying to play it as a politics sim or substantial story, because it isn’t either. I wish I could cheat this like a Choose Your Own Adventure book to skip to new and interesting parts.
Reigns: Three Kingdoms also introduces turn-based battles. Your army is a deck of nine cards representing characters you’ve recruited, each with their own stats and sometimes abilities. This legendary fighter will attack multiple units at once, this tank will automatically redirect some damage onto himself, this tricky guy will swap his health and damage when hit, and so on. You tend to field three or four at once, randomly drawn at the start of battle. Both armies deploy onto essentially rotating discs. With three moves each regular turn, you swipe your disc left or right to push a unit to the front and have them attack the foremost enemy unit. When a unit runs out of health and goes down, you can call in a replacement by activating their empty spot twice. Your goal is to deplete the enemy’s Supplies, a health bar which is exposed when no one occupies the front spot.
The battles are fine. While I’ve never found them challenging, I have enjoyed pulling off satisfying combos once I recruited enough units with interesting abilities. The random unit draft also means you can’t lean on known reliable strategies, you’re always reacting to what each battle gives you. It also has a multiplayer mode that’s all about battling. But god, I wish Three Kingdoms didn’t try to humanise the AI by making it indecisively spin its army much as you will, even on turns when it has no moves. When the story side has so much timewasting, please don’t make me watch an AI fart about for ten seconds while accomplishing literally nothing. I’m about ready to turn on the “auto-win” option and skip all this.
The marketing bills Reigns as “Tinder for monarchs” and sadly, from what friends tell me of their Tinder experiences, that might be not far off. I started out swiping with big dreams of adventure and intrigue and it was fun for a while but I’ve had my fill of frustrating repetition with too little pay-off. And it probably would be more fun if, rather than focusing on it at my PC, I idly swiped about on my phone while watching Columbo.
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